Is the internet revolutionary?
It is a necessary but insufficient factor for effecting revolution.
States are powerful. States have police, armies, massive budgets, the power to compel cooperation from telecoms providers and tech companies, and the power to break down your door and seize your devices or sneak in when you’re out at work and attach keyloggers to them. They have unblinking eyes, thanks to the ability to rotate shift after shift after shift into the surveillance monitoring stations. They can watch perfectly, waiting for their adversaries to make a single slip.
The best encryption, the fastest computers, the most open networks, will not make you comfortable living in an autocratic, corrupt state. You and your radical friends will eventually make a mistake and be rolled up by state thugs, or blacklisted, or blackmailed, or publicly discredited. The same computers, networks and encryption that you use to defend yourself from the state also defends it from you, allowing it to keep secrets you can’t brute-force, to coordinate its agents at the speed of light, to surveil you from a thousand networks.
To evade this all-pervading power, you have to be perfect. To defeat your evasion, the state need merely find a moment’s imperfection in your operational security.
If you live in a repressive, corrupt state where the reins of power are in the hands of ruthless, greedy elites, the mere use of the internet is insufficient to keep you safe from oppression and retaliation. Even if you escape and go into exile, the internet will not keep your family and friends safe as you communicate with them.
You can’t use the internet to obviate the need to effect political change.
But the internet can be used by revolutionaries.
There is no substitute for living in a democratic, legitimate, responsive state that uses best evidence and honest debate to arrive at policy, where officials are accountable and the rule of law is intact.
The internet – a universal network with universal computing endpoints that can send and receive secure messages – is a tool that can crack open a space in even the most totalitarian of regimes, a place where reformers and revolutionaries can organize, mobilize, and fight back. It’s a forum for whispering dissidence in secret and for blasting the shameful secrets of the powerful at full volume.
The theory of change that goes, “We will walk away from politics and use the internet to evade state oppression” is a dead letter. It always has been.
But the theory that goes, “The internet will let us organize to hold the government to account, to topple the corrupt, to rally the honorable and expose the wicked” – that theory has never been more important.
A corrupted, surveillant, controlled internet is a place where our lives are torn open by the powerful, logged, and distorted. A free, fair, and open internet is how we fight back.